The History of the Rocking Horse

Beth Rice 03/12/2020

In its prime, the rocking horse raced past other toys to become an envied playroom piece of its time. It was enhanced, improved and made safer over time, with its popularity skyrocketing. Then the rocking horse all but faded away, until waves of nostalgia and a longing for this old fashioned favorite once again took root.

Rocking Horse History

Toy animals have long been celebrated, and it has been said that the ancient Greek and Roman cultures had terracotta toy horses for children to play with. The history of the rocking horse is one of a handcrafted wooden rocking horse, and it includes the story of two toy horses that came before it, the hobby horse and the barrel horse.

During the medieval times, the hobby horse was the horse of choice. The hobby horse design featured a fake horse’s head that was attached to a long stick. Little ones would throw one leg over the stick to “get on” and gallop around with delight. The hobby horse design is still popular today, inspiring creative play and movement.

The Amish Hand Painted Rocking Horse

During the 16th century the barrel horse came, well, barreling onto the scene, if you will. A barrel horse design featured a big round log that was supported by four legs with a handcrafted horse head. This gave kiddie riders more room to sit on than the hobby horse.

A New Wooden Rocking Horse

It wasn’t until the 17th century that current rocking horse designs appeared in Europe, around the same time that bow rockers were invented. The specific place of origin and who exactly invented the rocking horse are unknown. Original rocking horses were made of solid wood and could tip over easily.

In 1880, Philip Marqua from Cinncinnati contributed to the rocking horse with his invention of the “safety stand.” The safety stand offered a glider type base that was safer than the classic bow rockers and it also took up less space in motion.

During the Victorian era the design became lighter, wider and more stable. Queen Victoria was a big fan of rocking horses, which contributed to them becoming increasingly popular.

Wealthy families took pride in the toys they could afford their children, and during the 18th and 19th centuries, the popularity of the rocking horse grew as playing on them helped children prepare to ride real horses. During this time, rocking horse designs could include real horsehair used for the tails, eyes made of glass and luxurious leather saddles. The Industrial Revolution saw a huge increase in rocking horse popularity as the costs to make them decreased and the middle class grew.

The 20th century found a declining interest in rocking horses after the events of the world wars and the Great Depression. During this period there was a shortage of materials as well as the craftsmen to build them. By the middle of the 20th century, the rocking horse was almost extinct.

Then, in the 1960s, the rocking horse found a new audience when craftsmen began restoring old ones and building new rocking horse designs. The love of this handcrafted toy began to grow again and continues to this day.

Amish made rocking horses are handcrafted with solid wood to ensure a true heirloom is added to the playrooms of today.

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  • Bob Pernsteiner
    October 2, 2021 at 9:27 am

    I have been making rocking horses for years. I have always been a wood worker, but I found that the smiles and happiness you see in a child’s face who gets one is much more rewarding than making furniture. I never sell my creations, but donate them to charitable fund raisers, mostly to children’s or veterans fund raisers. I have probably made more than 100. I would recommend this as a very rewarding hobby to anyone who enjoys working with wood.

  • Beth Rice
    October 5, 2021 at 9:54 am

    Hello Bob,

    It’s so nice that you’ve found a rewarding way to use your woodworking skills!

    Thanks for visiting us on Timber to Table.

  • Bob Poole
    September 10, 2022 at 1:22 pm

    Hello Ms Rice, many years ago I saw in Smithsonian magazine the oldest rocking horse found in America. I made a copy from solid cherry, cracks in the log and all, now nobody seems to know the original. I’m including a picture of my copy, if I can figure out how.

  • Beth Rice
    September 12, 2022 at 9:28 am

    What a fun project to replicate an antique rocking chair!

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